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The glory of painting


The Annunciation, the first full painting completed by Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Leonardo defined his whole approach to art in Codex Madrid II. "Do not make the muscles of your figures apparent", he writes, "because even if they are in their right places they do not show prominently unless the limbs in which they are located are exerting great force or are greatly strained." He criticizes "barren and woody figures" and applies the phrases "bag of nuts" and "bunch of radishes" to nudes that are "woody and without grace." Leonardo attacked many artists who were guilty of this abuse, and in a manuscript dating from 1513-1514 (known as "Manuscript E", at the Institut de France in Paris) his Imprecation appears to be a criticism of Michelangelo's nudes in the Sistine Chapel, in Rome. 

By Carlo Pedretti

"Limbs which are not in exercise must be drawn without showing the play of muscles. And if you do otherwise, you will have imitated a sack of nuts rather than a human figure." This is one of the notes on painting found in the second of the recently discovered Madrid Manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci dating from the first years of the 16th century. It is of great interest because it illustrates how Leonardo and Michelangelo differed sharply in their approach to depicting the human form, particularly as portrayed in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes (1508-1510). For Leonardo, the human body was not an excuse for the artist to show off his skill in depicting bulging muscles unnecessarily. 

This and the other notes on painting in Codex Madrid II were written at a crucial moment of Leonardo's career, and as such they reflect the innovations in the artistic theories of the Cinquecento (16th century). 

It is no longer the appearance of things that Leonardo is concerned with, but their structure, so that he adopts a type of drawing which moves away from atmospheric effects to stress form: form which is defined by sharp contours and by lines of shading which curve around it with deliberate slowness.

It is no longer the Florentine gracefulness of the late Quattrocento but a more heroic and herculean sense of proportions which is reflected in his anatomical studies, and in the studies for the warriors of his Battle of Anghiari, which appear to conform, like a silent homage to Masaccio, to the example provided by Michelangelo with his David, completed in 1501.

Form is expressed by style; and by style I mean not only Leonardo's art but also his thought as expressed by words, for there is a close affinity between his writing and his drawing. An example is given by a text already known, in which Leonardo tells the painter how to retain the images of human figures in action by using essential lines, something like shorthand.

"In order to draw a head," says Leonardo, "make an O, for an arm make a straight or bent line, and do the same for the legs and bust, and when at home turn such notations into perfect form."

However, our eye does not need to "turn" those notations into "perfect form"; on the contrary it is able to perceive the impulse that has guided the artist's hand, and it is undoubtedly seduced by the open touch, which leaves much more to the imagination.

The notes on painting in Leonardo's Codex Madrid II pertain not only to the human figure but also to the problems of light, shadow, and colour.

On one page Leonardo brings together two major aspects of pictorial vision: the representation of colour "in perspective", (that is, the colour of objects as it is affected by intervening atmosphere and therefore varying in intensity according to the distance of the objects), and human movement.

These aspects are further elaborated in other parts of the manuscript, and while the first is treated with a considerable degree of abstraction which can only be explained with the language of the diagram, the second is exemplified by quick notations of the human figure in action.

Some of them recall the sketches for the Battle of Anghiari drawings of an energy which approaches fury, done with an explosive line, such as the one at Windsor in which Leonardo juxtaposes the screaming expressions of men and animals, lions and horses. This is a sheet of thoughts, more than the definite path of an idea for composition: a search for the expression of human bestiality in war.

In Codex Madrid II one can see how optics is closely related to painting. One example: "The surface of every opaque body takes on the colour of the object opposite to It. But green subjects, such as meadows and other such things should be arranged opposite the shadows of green bodies, according to art, so that the shadows that take on the colour of such an object do not lose their quality and appear to be the shadow of a body other than green; should you put bright red facing a green shadow, the shadow will become reddish of a most ugly colour, and will be very different from the true shadow of green."

Most Interesting here is the advice given to the painter to make colour juxtapositions "according to art", so as to achieve the kind of harmony that derives from retaining in a shadow the colour of its object (Leonardo refers to the "true shadow") and by avoiding what he calls "very bad shadows", which are those affected by the reflection of another object of different colour, as would be the case with a green object that comes to produce a reddish shadow.

All the elements of Leonardo's painting are present in the theories expressed in the Madrid Manuscript. Another series of notes, in addition to those on form and colour, deals with light and shadow and the smooth transition from light to shadow, which is the true essence of the famous Leonardo sfumato. The notes on this subject in the newly discovered manuscript are numerous, but it is interesting to note that each one takes into account the element of colour.

When in the first period of his activity Leonardo was dealing with the problem of light and shadow he conceived of objects in terms of geometrical entities and was mainly concerned with the study of the gradations and degrees of intensity of the shadows.

After 1500 his major concern becomes the study of light and shadow on objects placed in the open air, thus taking into account colour and reflections. Light becomes the vehicle that blends the elements of landscape into a harmony of transitions from colour to colour, and this Leonardo calls "grace".

The human figure too becomes part of the landscape (one thinks of the Mona Lisa, The Virgin and St. Anne, Leda) and thus participates in the phenomena of reflection, refraction, and Interplay of coloured shadows, as is the case with every other object placed under the light of the sky. What can be seen under the projection of a roof is also to be seen under the chin of a human face.

One of Leonardo's most beautiful observations pertains to the way a human face should be represented. He advises the painter to arrange the setting so as to achieve the most delicate sfumato effects in the shadows, what he calls "the gracefulness of shadows, smoothly deprived of every sharp contour."

The setting is provided by the walls of the houses flanking a street, through which the light penetrates light made of air without brightness, a golden, diffuse light such as that of Giorgione.

Now, says Leonardo, "light ends upon the pavement of the street and rebounds with reflected motion at the shadowy parts of the faces, brightening them considerably. And the length of the aforementioned light of the sky created by the boundaries of the roofs hanging over the street illuminates almost as far as the beginning of the shadows which are underneath the projections of the face, and so it is gradually changed into brightness, until it ends over the chin with imperceptible shadows all over."

It is a widely accepted opinion that Leonardo was insensitive to colour and that for him the "glory of painting" lay only in the effect of relief that it can produce. The chronology of his notes on painting shows that this may apply to the first period of his theoretical work, when his art was still bound to the teaching of the Florentine school of the Quattrocento.

But after 1500 his observations on colour gradually intensify to a point where his theories have no application in any of his works which have come down to us. It is enough to mention the effects of violet light at sunset, a light that he designates as being of the colour of the lily and that makes the landscape "most cheerful and pleasant."

"The beauty of colour," concludes Leonardo, "is to be found in the main lights." Light is taken as a symbol of virtue, and the "truth of colours" is the beauty that light reveals in them.

What is most interesting in this case as in many others is what the British would refer to as the "unpredictable Leonardo", the Leonardo who cannot be anticipated, because the notes he writes are nothing but the record of the movements of his mind, so that his precepts to the painter do not have the stiffness of academic teaching but the freshness of a revelation.

But enough of comments, explanations, and interpretations! Leonardo's words come to us with the precision of mathematics and yet they are evocative of the space that opens up in the background of his paintings:

"What I would remind you of, concerning faces, is that you should consider how, at varying distances, different qualities of the shadows are lost and that only the main spots are left, that is, the pits of the eye and the like: and finally that the face remains dark, because the lights, which are small compared with the medium shadows, are absorbed by darkness. For this reason, at a distance, the qualities and quantities of the main lights and shadows are consumed, and everything blends into a medium shadow. And this is why trees and all objects appear darker at a distance than if the same objects were near the eye. From this obscurity on, the air which is between the eye and the object causes the object to become brighter and to turn towards blue. But it turns bluish rather in the shadows than in the luminous parts, where one can see better the true quality of the colours."


This article is inspired by a chapter on the "Notes on Painting in the Madrid Manuscripts" published In Italian in Carlo Pedrettl's book Leonardo da Vinci Inedito (Leonardo' da Vinci's unpublished works), published by Barbera Editore, Florence, 1968.

Carlo Pedretti

Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles, Carlo Pedretti is the author of many books on Leonardo. The latest, Leonardo: A Study In Chronology and Style, was published in 1973 by Thames and Hudson, London.